Don’t be an Amateur!

I was going through some old files the other day and came across a folder from my old Oakland days and discovered I had kept a great article entitled:  Pat Holt’s Top Ten Mistakes Writers’ Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). This morning I thought I’d look up her blog site, Holt Uncensored, and was delighted to see that her list was still up on the web and so, with a shout out to her, I’ve included this as the starting off point for putting together  our own Kill Zone top 15 (or maybe 20) mistakes that single you out as an amateur writer.

Holt’s top 10 are:

  1. Repeats – where a writer unconsciously has a ‘crutch’ word that is repeated (sometimes ad infinitem) in a manuscript. This may be a common word (see my recent blog post on writing tics) or an unusual word that stands out if repeated, or it could be a phrase that needs to be ‘lopped off’. So repeat after me…No Repeats!
  2. Flat writing – where your writing goes and die on the page…
  3. Empty adverbs – when used unnecessarily ’empty’ adverbs don’t add anything – in fact they can suck the meaning from a phrase or  appear infantile and clunky.
  4. Phony Dialogue – be careful not to use dialogue to advance the plot (people don’t normally recite plot facts to one another) or you can lose credibility with your reader.  Also be wary of using ‘fashionable’ dialogue or slang that can make your dialogue sound dated.
  5. No-good suffixes – don’t take a good word and muck with it by adding ‘ness’, ‘ize’, ‘ly’ or ‘ingly’ to the end of it….otherwise you get ‘meaninglessness’
  6. ‘To be’ words – nix these and use words like ‘is’, ‘am’, were’, ‘being’, ‘been’ or ‘there was’ or ‘there is’ sparingly as they can flatten your prose.
  7. Lists – don’t provide a long list of items as if they were on a checklist. Whether it be nouns (e.g. every flower in the garden) or verbs (e.g. everything your protagonist did that morning) this will only cause a reader’s eyes to glaze over.
  8. Show, don’t tell. ‘Nuff said!
  9. Awkward phrasing – cull any weird or awkward phrases that stop a reader in the midst of reading or which makes you sound like you’re trying way to hard to show you’re a ‘writer’.
  10. Commas – make sure you know your grammar and punctuation so you can demonstrate to an agent or editor you know what you’re doing.

To this great list I would add:

  1. Data downloads – don’t suddenly force feed your reader lengthy exposition that halts the story in its tracks
  2. Spell Check! – nothing says ‘amateur’ than sloppy typos.
  3. Know your core story and stick with it (for this I have to give kudos to Larry Brooks, my Monday blog-mate, as his book Story Fix clearly demonstrates,  this is where many writers (both novice and professional)  come adrift)
  4. Purple prose – If a simple, clear, precise description will suffice don’t overburden it with flowery, purple prose.
  5. Faking it – readers know if you’re not being authentic so don’t try and mimic another writer’s ‘voice’ – find your own and go with it…Also if you are writing say a romance just because you think you can make money, but you don’t actually like or read the genre, guess what? Readers, agents, and editors will know. There’s no point faking it…

So what about you TKZers, what would you add to make your ‘Top List of Mistakes That Make You Look Like An Amateur’?




22 thoughts on “Don’t be an Amateur!

  1. I’d add, as a sub-bullet, under spell check, know the words that won’t get caught by a simple mouse click -your/you’re, to/too, pear/pair/pare, fair/fare, etc. – and make sure you’ve got the “write won”…

  2. WRITING BY THE POUND: Many first novels are too long and closely resemble the phone book in length. A new author I knew had a request to submit 50 pages or her first 3 chapters. She thought that meant it was her choice, not that the agent only wanted a max of 50 pages. Since her first chapter was 45 pages long, she submitted her first 3 chapters. Big mistake.

  3. Love these. Guilty of all at some point.
    Also, check your pronouns. That seems to be the biggie for me when I go over my nightly chapter printouts. Can I tell who’s speaking, or did a ‘he’ or ‘she’ start referring to someone else?

  4. I’m guilty of #1, repeats. In my recently-finished manuscript, I discovered I used the phrase “at that point” seven times.

    I also have to concentrate on making characters’ names unique from each other. I have a tendency to use the same first letters, same number of syllables for all characters, rhyming names, etc. Early on, I had to change, the name of the protagonist’s husband. When used together, they sounded like a comedy duo: Mick and Maeve.

    • I think I might have mentioned in my ‘writing tic blog post’ that I too am guilty of suddenly having every character’s name start with the same letter…sometimes you have to wonder what your brain is up to!

  5. I’d add:

    1. No throat clearing allowed.

    Figure out the most enticing point to enter your story and go there! Get into your scene as late as possible. Think twice about that prologue. Ditch the backstory in the early going. Don’t open with a guy getting a call waking him up and telling him there’s a body found out in the swamp then strapping on his gun and badge. Open with the cop looking down into the shallow grave as he squeaks off the lid of his take-out coffee.

    2. Tell me where I am. Too many first chapters I’ve read (some published!) give no sense of place or time frame. You don’t want your reader to feel like a coma victim just coming to.

    Good post!!

    • Both great points. I recently started a book that totally fell into the second category and my boys and I (I was reading it to them) were all like – huh? Where are we, what’s happening? We’re at chapter 5 and still not totally sure what’s happening…not a good sign! We’re thinking of ditching the book all together – too much hard work for the reader!

    • Excellent points — and I’d add start every scene/chapter with a way to ground the reader as to who, where, and when. Much as we had to think it happens, sometimes readers put down the book for a while and when they pick it up again, they need to be up to speed in the first sentence.

  6. Great list, Clare! I would add: not varying sentence structure; not having anything worthwhile happening in a scene; assuming the reader will remember something that happened three chapters back, and therefore launching into a scene without enough context…sigh. The list is endless.

    • Hah! Nothing like an endless list:) I do think writers need to rethink every scene as sometimes there are just ‘fillers’ which you can tell the writer wanted to keep in because of some beautiful scenery or great writing but ultimately…still a filler!

  7. My biggest pet peeve is when people add -ness to something, especially in moments of high tension or emotion. The word “darkness” and “nothingness” has always been redundant to me. Dark and nothing are already nouns, so nounifying them with “ness” is pointless. But I guess, since they are adjectives as well, it’s nounifying the adjective version?

    I will write “darkness” and “nothingness” myself, but I often go back and change them. It’s surprising how much better it makes me feel.

  8. This is related to who’s speaking, but as a newbie, I’ve found that I have to make sure that I haven’t changed tenses. I have a sneaky little unconscious habit of going from past to present tense, then back to past again. I wonder why I did this on a read-through, then I do it again. Any suggestions on how to nip this in the bud? 🙂

  9. Wonderful post, we can never get enough of this message. It’s one of my personal hot button favorites as a story coach and blogger, too, because no matter how high the mountain we climb to shout this out there, and how often and how loud we do it, it isn’t long before a manuscript crosses our desk with one or more (usually more) of these sins evident on auto-replay. Too often, too, these are the writers who are asking about “how do I get an agent?” instead of “how do I write a story than an agent will take seriously?”

    So thanks for adding to the chorus, and doing so as well as you did here.

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